Former prime minister Julia Gillard has launched a research project aimed at discovering more about the link between early childhood trauma and adult mental health issues.

The project will focus on children in Wyndham and the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.

The $2.5 million, five-year project, which will target youngsters up to eight years old, will be led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI).

Ms Gillard launched the project at the Murdoch Children’s Research Centre (MCRI) at the Royal Children’s Hospital last week.

The research is being co-funded by Beyond Blue, of which Ms Gillard is chairperson, and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

The project’s lead researcher, MCRI’s Harriet Hiscock, said a team from 11 Australian institutes and universities would start the research by finding out what practical support parents needed – such as accessible counselling, housing support or health care.

Professor Hiscock said the long-term goal of the research was the prevention of, and early intervention in, incidents of childhood trauma or adversity in order to reduce national rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

“Children who experience stresses or adversities as they grow up are six to 10 times more likely to develop mental health problems later in life,” she said. “These adversities include a broad range from physical and emotional abuse or neglect, parent mental health problems, harsh parenting, parent substance abuse, through to housing problems and social isolation. By lessening the stresses on young children, we improve their wellbeing now and in the future.”

Ms Gillard said that half of all adult mental health issues and problems emerged before the age of 14.

“This program will demonstrate how important it is to invest in the early years, because adverse childhood experiences can have life-long implications,” she said.